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Monday, 15 June 2015

Misinterpreting the tone of an email

Daf Yomi Nedarim 21


Have you ever been burned by an email or a text message?  You write something quickly only to realize that the recipient has completely misunderstood your tone.  It’s very important to read and reread any message before you send it, just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, as the famous story of Trotsky’s telegram demonstrates:

Stalin gets up one day and gathers everyone together.
“Comrades, I have a major announcement.  I’ve just received a telegram from Trotsky that you all need to hear. Listen to this: Joseph Stalin.  The Kremlin. Moscow.  You were right.  I was wrong.  You are the true heir to Lenin.  I should apologize.  Leon Trotsky.
The crowd is ecstatic.   But then an old Jewish tailor beckons to Stalin.
“Your Eminence, I think such an important telegram deserves to be read with more enthusiasm and expression.  May I?”  Stalin nods and hands him the piece of paper.
He reads, “Joseph Stalin.  The Kremlin.  Moscow.  You were right?!  I was wrong?!  You are the true heir to Lenin?!  I should apologize?!  Leon Trotsky.

A fellow once came to Rabbi Assi seeking annulment of a vow.
He said to him, “Did you ever regret making the vow?”
The fellow replied, “No,” and Rabbi Assi released him from the vow.
Rabbeinu Nissim explains: The fellow actually responded, “No?!” as if to say, “Of course!”

Rabbi Mordechai Becher uses the story of Trotsky’s telegram to point out that there’s no way anyone could understand the meaning of the Written Torah without an Oral tradition of punctuation.   Indeed, as we see from this piece of Gemara, even the Oral Law needs an Oral tradition of punctuation to explain it!   If you look into the Torah, there are no verse breaks or chapter breaks and without the vowels, a word may be read ten different ways.  Obviously, the Oral tradition was always there to explain the meaning.

So when ignorant people claim that the Torah only prohibited cooking a goat in its mother’s milk (chalav), ask them how they know that.  Maybe the Torah actually doesn’t want the goat cooked in its mother’s fat (cheilev)!   Without the Oral tradition, the letters are absolutely meaningless.

You see in your own day-to-day dealings how easy it is to miscommunicate a message if the recipient misreads your tone.  I knew two sisters who didn’t talk to one another for months, simply because one didn’t understand that her sister’s email message was tongue-in-cheek.   How much more so should we not assume that it is possible to understand the Torah’s meaning without the correct tradition.


Tone and context are vitally meaningful.  Always check over your emails and text messages before sending and ask yourself if you might be misinterpreted.  And remember that if that’s the case for a simple text message, how much more careful must we be with our interpretation and understanding of the Torah.  May you merit revering the Oral Law and true meaning of the Torah and never giving people the wrong impression concerning anything you say or write!